16 December 2009

Betsy's Editing Process

I had a request for a post on how we edit stories. Of course, each editor could probably write our own posts because we have differences to our styles. I'll let my partners speak for themselves. But I can say with all certainty that should I become your editor, I'm likely to imprint some of my style on it, just not quite in the way you'd think. Still, with that, you're probably wondering what is my style?

I appreciate economy in short fiction. I favor action over internal narrative and intrusive voice. I like streamlined stories with natural flow and progression, stories in which plot holds significance with no extraneous explanations. I prefer meaning over language, showing over telling, action over description. I lean toward plainer language.

It might sound like I operate within a very narrow frame of preference, but if you look at the last four years of stories I've edited, I think you're going to see a huge range. I am actively seeking different genres at different times, but generally I go by originality and entertainment.

After four years, we've achieved the luxury of a generous, high-quality slushpile.

slush is my first opportunity to touch your story and influence the next issue. I like to see the above qualities in the slush. As I've tried to demonstrate in the First Page Game, I read my slush editorially, thinking about what I'll have to do to the story to make it fit my preference. I might read along happily, without thinking about it, and that's a quick pass to the hold file. It may not be a quick pass to the issue, though. If upon second reading I notice too many problems, I'm probably not going to push for it.

But really this is about stories that made the cut, because I generally don't touch a word until we have a contract for a story. Not permanently, anyway. I do sometimes adjust things while I read slush for editorial experimenting, kind of like getting my feet wet before diving into the pool. But I don't save any changes until our offer has been accepted. The staff needs to read the story as is.

After our production meeting (a whole other blog topic), I start getting into nuts and bolts, my pinky hovering near the delete key. I'm going to remove qualifiers, some adverbs, and fix word echoes. I'm going to add tags for clarity or remove them for pacing. I've been known to cut lines of dialogue and rearrange choreography, but your characters are still going to mean what you meant them to say, and they're still going to get from your Point A to your Point B.

I'll fix sentence structure, generally to subject/verb, and fix weak structure, such as sentences that start with "there". I'm going to fix punctuation (commas!), grammar, and spelling – and I'm going to be mightily annoyed if I have to do a lot of that. I'm going to spend some time on formatting, though our new website makes that more of a snap than ever before. I do have some editorial quirks, like using a comma before and in a series, banishing most ellipses and italics, and reserving exclamation marks for actual exclamations. You might find some differences among the staff here, and it's because we've never made much effort to standardize. In general, our habits are very similar.

What I'm not going to do is mess with your "voice." It's part of why I like the story in the first place, so you're not going to see me swap major words very often, unless a verb is just wrong. (Not that I can think of a time that a verb was wrong.) I'm also generally not a scene slasher, though one of our authors reminded me recently I cut the opening scene from his story years ago. Upon rereading it, I agreed with myself that I still would have cut it, so there.

A word on mistakes: they happen, though we do our best to avoid them, of course. Every editor reads every story. The story goes to one editor for editing and galleys go back to the author for final approval. I often read the story again before formatting it for the issue – in fact, we all try to go over the whole issue. Even so, it seems we end up with a mistake or two. Most times a reader or the writer catches it. But we want to know and fix them! Unlike print, our electronic issues can be repaired at any time. So we appreciate (albeit with a cringe) when someone points out a mistake. But as a writer, the best thing you can do to help us in our job is to send as clean a copy as possible.

14 comments:

lesleylsmith said...

Wow, thanks for all the info, Editor Betsy! Apparently, my editing philosophy is significantly different than Betsy's. I definitely do not imprint my style on another author's work. After reading this post, I'm not sure I agree that our habits are similar.

What do all these editorial issues mean for you, the author? Not as much as you might think. Generally, we edit the stories that we like the most among those selected for the issue. This means Betsy often edits stories that already tend toward action rather than "internal narrative and intrusive voice", etc.

In any case, we always want to have a positive relationship with our authors, so feel free to communicate with your editor. :)
And keep sending those stories in!

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I think you might misunderstand. I imprint my stylistic preferences on our slush, as far as what I pick. I don't change stories to better fit my style.

lesleylsmith said...

Thanks for the clarification.

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